Dealing with Altitude

Last night was my first good sleep at altitude. Usually the day after the second good night’s sleep, my altitude issues are fully gone and I can exercise at my normal level. So I’m doing great! Without any drugs this normally takes more than three weeks.

With Acetylzolamide (Diamox) taken judiciously (a half tablet the night before and then a half or full tablet each morning and night for two days), it takes a week or two to fully adjust. I’m pretty satisfied with that. A week means that I can do what I need to do for my family. When I worked for FedEx, Acetylzolamide meant that I could do my job, more or less. I wasn’t as effective as I would have been elsewhere, but I could be of use. It reduced my misery to a lower level. All good.

The best way for me to deal with altitude adjustment is to slowly drive to Denver and then spend 2-3 days in a hotel room before seeing anyone or doing anything. But this isn’t always possible. Also it is expensive in terms of time and money. Bless the athletes and scientists who tested Acetylzolamide and found it reduced the time to adjust.

There are several ways to deal with altitude that don’t include Acetylzolamide, which is a prescription medication. One is to take a half dose of non-caffeinated aspirin the night before traveling and each day at altitude until you adjust. This was my preferred method when traveling for FedEx before I learned about Acetylzolamide.

  • Avoid making altitude sickness worse. Here is a list of ways to prep for your experience at higher altitude.
  • Avoid alcohol the night before heading up and until you have fully adjusted.
  • Lose weight. Fat doesn’t cause altitude sickness. Your genes predispose you to it. But if you are fat, excess weight makes altitude sickness more miserable, especially sleeping at altitude.
  • Spend your first day or two at a higher altitude than the one you plan to perform at. Use the higher altitude to force your body to adjust. And by perform, I don’t just mean races and such. It’s everything. If you need to help your parents move. If you need to hold on to your composure in tough negotiations. Whatever you need to do, altitude sickness reduces your performance. Athletes call this method “Sleep High Train Low” and they are much more meticulous about it. I use a version of this when I travel to Denver (5,200′) and take stop for a few days in Santa Fe, NM (7,200′).
  • Drink lots of water the week before heading to altitude and keep drinking it at altitude. My rule of thumb is that if I’m not peeing every hour or two the day before heading to Denver, I’m probably not drinking enough.
  • It’s ok to take NSAIDS for altitude headaches, but they are not a cure for altitude sickness. In truth, the only cure is to take your time, rest, and wait for it to go away. Acetylzolamide just reduces the time required.
  • If you have altitude sickness (nausea, headache, dizziness, trouble sleeping) take it easy. You cannot make it better by powering through it. Build time into your schedule for rest.
  • For more information from the scientific standpoint on altitude sickness, these are the best resources I’ve found:

Altitude.org is an organization devoted to studying this. This is the place to go for the latest information. Personally when I’ve gone to my doctor to ask for Acetylzolamide, I’ve brought a printout from a page by the British NHS, which for a long time had the best documentation on it, including dosing. Because it is a reputable medical source, I think it was easier to talk to my doctor about the drug. There are many other places on the Internet these days, but stick to the ones that are from reputable agencies. Here’s the CDC’s page on Altitude Sickness.

The scientific evidence shows that the only reliable way of solving altitude sickness is to descend or use Acetylzolamide. That said, there are yogic ways of dealing with altitude adjustment.

Here is what yogis claim work. For myself, only headstand seemed to have any effect and it is very temporary:

  • Pranayama – Both Equal breathing and kappalabhati
  • Headstand
  • Downward dog

As I said above, I acclimatized very quickly this time. Because I misplaced my Acetylzolamide, I had to fall back on aspirin and lots of water the day before. Then I took a full dose of Acetylzolamide when landing in Denver and rested the first day, taking a full dose before bed the first night. It worked fairly well. So I’m recording this here.

May you achieve great heights today with no altitude sickness. Be well friends!

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